To tweet or not to tweet? That is a question some of you may be pondering.
On the one hand, there are more farmers on Twitter than gophers in Saskatchewan. And scientists and researchers. And specialists with chemical, seed and fertilizer companies. And government officials, grain traders, media. The whole ag sector is there.
Twitter also houses urban people hoping to learn more about agriculture. This is a tremendous opportunity for farmers, livestock producers, and others in agriculture willing to share information and answer questions. Perhaps more importantly, it gives the agriculture industry a chance to listen to individual consumers, to find out what their concerns are and what they want.
But before you saddle up, you need to know Twitter is a little like the Wild West at times. There’s a social code, and it’s not completely lawless, but things can escalate very quickly.
Here are a few tips on using Twitter effectively and dealing with its wilder side.
Twitter is all about the conversation
One day, you may click on your neighbour’s Twitter profile and realize he has 50 more followers than you.
“What?” you’ll sputter. “What does he know about anything? Why would those people follow him?”
But I am here to tell you numbers don’t matter all that much on Twitter. There will always be people with more followers than you. What’s more important is the quality of the conversations. It’s about listening as much as talking, so don’t just tweet at people. Read what others tweet.
You can learn all kinds of things from your Twitter contacts. Every week during the growing season, Scott Meers and Shelley Barkley of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development hold a weekly bug chat to find out what people are seeing in the fields. People post pictures of insects and insect damage, report what they’re seeing in the field and ask questions.
To tune in to these bug chats, you need to know how to use hashtags (#). Hashtags have nothing to do with any illicit activity. They are basically keywords used to track Twitter conversations. So, to follow the bug chat, search for #abbugchat. And use that hashtag when you want to tweet something about Alberta crop pests.
If you’re using your laptop, you can use a free program like Tweetdeck to organize your Twitter feeds. I’ve added several columns for specific hashtags to my Tweetdeck. I also have lists of specific people on Twitter. The reason I do this is I follow about 1,500 people, and it would be impossible to track conversations otherwise.
Here are some other hashtags you might want to follow:
- #WestCdnAg — information about farming in Western Canada.
- #MBAg, #SaskAg, #ABAg — ag information in each Prairie province.
- #Canola, #Wheat, #Barley — crop-specific hashtags will yield everything from production information to recipes.
- #Agchat — used internationally for general agricultural topics.
- Farm shows create their own hashtags. #SBIC15 denoted the Saskatchewan Beef Industry Conference in Saskatoon. #FarmTech15 organized conversations around Edmonton’s Farm Tech. So next year watch for similar hashtags.
Wondering who to follow? There is no shortage of farmers and ranchers on Twitter. There are also several producer groups and ag companies. Once you sign on, you’ll find them in a flash.
As a short cut, look for lists of Twitter users created by other people. I have a couple of my own lists, including one for farm media. I also subscribe to lists curated by other Twitter users — one for livestock vets and one for Saskatchewan agriculture. You can subscribe to any of these lists by going to my Twitter profile page and clicking on “Lists.”
In some ways, Twitter is like a small town. There is an unspoken etiquette code.
Most people I’m connected with on Twitter get this. I think we expect each other to have manners, even during heated debates. So don’t let the following list discourage you from signing up. If you’ve avoiding burning too many bridges in your own town, you should be able to do the same on Twitter.
Remember, there’s no privacy on Twitter. Anything you tweet can be seen by anyone with an Internet connection. It can be retweeted multiple times. You can send people private direct messages, if you’re both following each other. But the other party can share it. So remember, today’s off-the-cuff tweet could be tomorrow’s coffee row conversation, times a thousand.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. You might make a great point that really strikes a chord with many people.
Some people in small towns have long memories. And nothing disappears into the ether on Twitter, either. If you tweet something regrettable or nasty, someone might take a screenshot of that tweet for evidence. If that happens, deleting the original comment isn’t going to help you. I’m no lawyer, but I know defamation law applies to social media, too.
Not everything you see or hear on Twitter is the Gospel truth. Check the source before you retweet something inflammatory or odd. Don’t retweet links to articles or websites without reading them first and making sure they seem accurate. Be a little cautious of people who claim to have knowledge about some newsworthy event or public figure, especially if they’re not using their real names. Ask yourself, how do I know this person is who he or she claims to be?
Credibility is everything. What you say and do in your town either encourages people to trust you or gives them pause. The same principle applies on Twitter.
Don’t obsessively tweet at one person, especially if that person isn’t responding to your tweets or tells you to stop. After all, you wouldn’t follow someone in your community or sit in your truck outside her house late at night, would you?
And if someone is harassing, threatening or defaming you on Twitter, document it with screenshots in case she deletes the tweets later on.
I think it’s fine to ask people you know to support you in causes, such as an ice bucket challenge. But asking 100 people you’ve never interacted with to retweet information about your new book or product is bad form, in my personal opinion. At least introduce yourself before you ask.
I personally dislike it when people try to tell me what to eat, or what not to eat. I try to show the same respect to others. If someone wants to go vegan, or cut gluten, or eat the way they think Palaeolithic people did, I don’t try to talk them out of it. Except for my husband. Someone tried to convince him to throw out our canola oil once and I put my foot down.
But food is political these days. Right now livestock producers are defending their practices against activist vegans using the #farm365 hashtag. The hashtag was started by Andrew Campbell, an Ontario dairy farmer and writer. Campbell resolved to tweet a picture of his farm each day this year. Activists quickly hijacked the hashtag by flooding it with points supporting animal rights. Livestock producers rallied against them.
You don’t have to jump into this debate. But if you’re thinking about diving into the ruckus, the first thing I’d suggest is reading tweets tagged #farm365 so you know what you’re getting into. Some activists have been comparing artificial insemination of livestock to rape. Some compare animal agriculture to the Holocaust. Some sling mud at specific livestock producers. This is nasty stuff, but they are within their rights to do it (unless they start threatening people with violence or libel someone, I suppose).
If, after reading those tweets, you think you can participate without turning into a badger and eviscerating people online, go for it. Your goal shouldn’t be to win over the extreme activists. Instead, remember that other people are watching. People who may be on the fence about agriculture, especially animal agriculture. You should try to get them on your side. If you get write rude, cutting things, you might push them on to the activists’ side of the fence.
Be prepared for people to challenge you directly if you join the #farm365 conversation. If you respond to their accusations, do so in a calm, polite manner. Don’t call them names or otherwise personally attack them, even if they started it. Take the high road.
But I don’t think you even have to respond directly to anything the activists tweet to come out on the winning side. You may not even have to write one word about them or their beliefs. Just posting pictures about the day-to-day life on your operation shows people what really happens on most farms. Many agriculturalists are already doing this.
If enough of you on the agriculture side stay classy and stay involved, you’ve a much better shot at winning people over. Let the extreme activists destroy their own position through offensive hyperbole and poor form.